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“It’s changed,” Kraft said Tuesday. “We’ve had the privilege of getting out ahead the last few games and then really turning it on and that makes a difference. But when the games are tight, and you have to just stay there (and play) strong in the fourth quarter,” that shows determination.

The rookies picked that up as the season has gone along, gaining confidence and comfort. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been outstanding, cornerback Devin McCourty is second in the NFL with six interceptions and linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham have made strong impacts. Former free agents BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have revitalized the running game and improved a diverse offense that baffles defenders.

All have been coachable and consistent, the Patriots way.

“It’s all about buying in from the first day that you walk into the organization,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “If you want to be on your own program, you’ll be out of here real quick.”

The win in San Diego put the Patriots at 5-1, but they still had some growing to do. They beat Minnesota 28-18, but then were upset 34-14 by the Cleveland Browns, who entered at 2-5.

“Maybe that was waking up a little bit,” cornerback Darius Butler said. “We’ve been paying a lot more attention to detail” since then.

Players blamed the loss on a bad week of practice, a lack of focus that carried over to the game. They vowed to change.

“It’s going to be a different team,” Branch vowed the day after the setback. “I’ll tell you right now.”

He was right.

The turnaround was immediate: a 39-26 win over the tough Pittsburgh Steelers in which the Patriots led 23-3 after three quarters. And then a 31-28 victory over the Indianapolis Colts sealed by an interception by James Sanders at the New England 6-yard line as Peyton Manning was driving for the winning touchdown in the final minute.

The Patriots had learned their lesson from the playoff loss to the Ravens in which Brady’s three turnovers led to a 24-0 first-quarter deficit _ start fast and avoid mistakes.

“There is a good mix of players in here that really are listening to what our coaches teach,” Brady said. Belichick “wants us to be a smart, tough, physical football team that plays well under pressure. We listen to the best coach of all time. Hopefully, you learn something.”

Since beating the Colts, the Patriots have been nearly unstoppable, scoring on 18 of their last 26 possessions with Brady throwing 10 touchdown passes. A year after getting off to a so-so start, when he was coming back from a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 opener, the former NFL MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion may be playing as well as ever.

“He is such an outstanding leader,” Kraft said. “The real brilliance … is the way he can read defenses and see where the opportunities are and then put the ball in places where only our receivers can catch it.”

The remaining three games are at home against Green Bay, on the road against Buffalo (3-10) then back home against Miami (7-6).

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